Culture

Diahann Carroll Was A Pioneer For Black People, Inside And Outside Of Hollywood

Diahann Carroll Was A Pioneer For Black People, Inside And Outside Of Hollywood

 

Photo Courtesy of Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

With the departure of Diahann Carroll from this earth on Friday, October 4, 2019, the world is a little less beautiful.

The pioneering actress and singer was born Carol Diahann Johnson in New York City on July 17, 1935 to parents John and Mabel Johnson. Her father worked as a subway conductor and her mother as a nurse. She attended the High School of Music & Art and at just 15 years old, began to model for magazines like Ebony, Tan and Jet. Carroll continued to participate in modeling and singing competitions throughout high school.  She enrolled at New York University for college, where she eventually won an opportunity on ABC’s Chance of a Lifetime show to appear as a regular performer at the popular Latin Quarter Nightclub in Manhattan.

Carroll eventually dropped out of college to pursue her entertainment career and landed her first big role in Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954) alongside Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. She went on to find success on Broadway, eventually transitioning to movies, starring in a live adaptation of the hit opera Porgy and Bess in 1959. But her breakout role came as Julia, a sitcom about a nurse whose husband had died in Vietnam, raising a young son. It was the first time ever that a Black woman was portrayed on television in a non-domestic role. Julia Baker, the character Carroll portrayed was beautiful, well dressed, educated and opinionated. 

Diahann Carroll as Julia Baker circa 1968. Photo Courtesy of NBC Television/Getty Images 

Carroll spoke about Julia in an interview saying, "We were saying to the country, 'We're going to present a very upper middle-class Black woman raising her child, and her major concentration is not going to be about suffering in the ghetto,'" she said. She said that many people were upset because they didn’t feel like it accurately portrayed what life was like for most African Americans during that time. 

But Carroll stood up for the show and the message behind it. “We were of the opinion that what we were doing was important, and we never left that point of view … even though some of that criticism of course was valid. We were of a mind that this was a different show. We were allowed to have this show,” Carroll said.

In 1969, Carroll became the first Black actress to win a Golden Globe award for Julia. She was also the first Black actress to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy series for the show. In 1974, Carroll landed her biggest success in the hit film Claudine, which told the story of a single mother of six in Harlem who falls in love with the garbage man, played by James Earl Jones. Claudine became a classic and helped to humanize women on welfare. It is still regarded as one of her most memorable roles and earned her an Oscar nomination.

Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones in Claudine circa 1974. Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/ IMDB

Her next big break came as the stylish Dominique Devereaux on the 1980s soap opera Dynasty. The role made Carroll the first African American to play a lead role on a primetime soap opera. 

Devereaux was quick witted, humorous and she didn’t tolerate any mess. When helping to craft her role on Dynasty, Carroll told the writers to craft Devereaux’s character as a white male. In a 1980s interview about the character she played on the soap opera, Carroll said, “The most important thing to remember is write for a white male, and you’ll have the character. Don’t try to write for what you think I am. Write for a white man who wants to be wealthy and powerful. That’s the way we found Dominique Deveraux.” 

Diahann Carroll as Dominique Devereaux circa 1984. Photo Courtesy of ABC/Walt Disney

In addition to her acting career Carroll recorded several albums over the course of her lifetime and published two memoirs, Diahann (1986) and The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, Mothering and Other Things I Learned Along the Way (2008). She also received numerous accolades including a Tony Award for her performance in the 1962 musical “No Strings,” a love story about a Black fashion model, which was written specifically for her by composer Richard Rogers. And in 2011, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. 

She was one of the first Black women to display such sass and grace and Black girls around the world were and will always be grateful for it. She gave us options, options that didn’t exist for Black women in mainstream media, through her style, her roles and her love stories. The trailblazing icon passed away at the age of 84 after complications from breast cancer. She is survived by her daughter, journalist Suzanne Kay and two grandchildren, August and Sydney.